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  • Writer's pictureJessica Leigh Lebos

Yo, Yenta! Why the Virgin Mary?

The latest project in my reclaimed Mardi Gras bead series might cause a little confusion, perhaps even some plotzing among the mishpocheh. What is a nice Jewish girl doing making pictures of the Virgin Mary?

jessica leigh lebos art project
Reclaimed bead art: La Virgen de Guadalupe

Let’s be clear: I’m quite steadfast in my heritage and feel strongly about the lines between the traditions of my ancestors and those of others. I know what is mine in among the smorgasboard of the pan-global religious landscape and what is not: Santa? Nope. Peeps? Only after Easter and bought on sale. Buddhist prayer flags? Maybe over the mezzuzah.

Yet this particular incarnation of Marian imagery—La Virgen de Guadalupe—has always been an inherent part of my faith. When I was a little girl, maybe six, I saw a giant mural on the side of Mexican tienda near my father’s office in Mesa, Arizona. The life-size image shimmered in the sun, and I thought it was just the most beautiful things I’d ever seen: The greens and reds and golds around her beatific and beautiful face, part art, part alien. Though I vaguely recognized her as part of the Jesus thing our Catholic neighbors were into, I was mesmerized. She seemed to stare right at me even as her eyes looked down, a swirling, powerful presence.

For the last 40 years, my adoration of Our Lady of Guadalupe has not waned. A little wooden box with her likeness sits on my night table, and I’ll occasionally pick up a candle at the grocery store to burn along with Shabbat candles on Friday nights. Other representations of the Virgin don’t have the same effect, though I certainly appreciate the canon of art she’s inspired.

Perhaps the distinctly Latina image reminds me of my desert childhood, maybe it’s the vibrant colors, maybe it’s the legend itself—how a woman of light appeared on a hillside near Mexico City in the 1500s to a lowly peasant, telling him to gather roses and imprinting her likeness on his cloak. Interestingly, the exact same spot where she allegedly alighted was once a temple where Aztecs had worshipped the Goddess Tonantzin, which translates into “Our Mother” in the indigenous Nahautl language.

The idea of a Universal Mother transcends religions and cultures, and for whatever reason, this symbol activates my soul. In my 20s, a therapist introduced me to Carl Jung’s concept of the Good Mother, the archetype of nurturing, rebirth and creativity within human consciousness. I liked the idea of Motherly God, an alternative form of the Eternal usually presented as so remote in the Torah—and occasionally violently angry. A Mother God felt like a calm presence, a gentle hug, forgiveness. It didn’t take me long to merge this psychological tool into my spiritual toolkit, represented by Our Lady de Guadalupe.

Here’s the thing: Judaism does not do idols; the Second Commandment spells that out very clearly. Judaism does touch upon the idea of the Divine Feminine—referenced in the Talmud as the “Shekinah” and exalted as the Sabbath Bride by 16th century rabbi Isaac Luria—though it remains mostly hidden. I’d never even heard of the Shekinah until I began exploring Jewish motherhood on Yo, Yenta!, and I was gobsmacked (goddesssmacked?) that such a rich spiritual fount even existed.

But the concept of the Divine Mother came long before the scribes put feather to parchment scrolls, rooted as it is in the ancient goddess worship of prehistoric peoples who recognized the majestic sanctity of nature’s cycles of fertility and rebirth, of unconditional acceptance and love. I do not see the image of Our Lady as an idol so much as a reminder that the Divine Feminine is all around us, and Her sacred love is needed in this world more than ever.

I feel similarly about symbol of the hamsa—a sacred feminine hand with ties in both ancestral Judaism as well as Islam’s Hand of Fatima. My paternal grandmother told me that a hamsa was a symbol for protection, and I wear one to represent my faith. I don’t think it’s an accident that hamsas have begun appearing on everything from iPhone cases to tank tops from Urban Outfitters—the Divine Mother resonates with our current consciousness at a time when forgiveness and acceptance are an antidote to suffering.

So that’s my story and my reasoning of how and why this yenta has borrowed the Virgen de Guadalupe to express my devotion to the Divine Feminine.

Appropriated, if you insist. Sorry not sorry.

Also, it must pointed out that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was herself a nice Jewish girl.

All I know is that when I hear Paul McCartney sing “When I myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me,” I know that Our Lady has taught me that the same solace is available to me and all humans, regardless of religion, race, gender or imagined difference.

May the Good Mother within all of us bless the world with peace and love.

Things to know about the project:

*Materials: Reclaimed Mardi Gras Beads, reclaimed bulletin board, gold spray paint, wood glue

*I have chosen to only use reclaimed beads that are donated to me, found or bought secondhand, so I am limited to the colors I have. I had both white and black beads and struggled with what “race” to make Our Lady. I finally settled on the lovely lavender, which absolves the conflict and hearkens back to my original impression of her as a gorgeous alien.

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